Jonathan Berman.
Business between the US and Africa just took a step forward.Easy to miss amidst the partisan din of the approaching election, the US Senate passed the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, and it was signed into law Oct. 5. Despite the strong bipartisan support (93 of 99 senators voted for it) the act has its critics, in particular among libertarian conservatives.

In my view, the BUILD act brings the US-Africa business relationship from underground to above ground and may yet bring it to the cloud.
For at least thirty years, the US’s commercial relationship with Africa has been dominated by resources underground. Oil, gas and minerals account for about half of all US direct investment in Africa. There has been growth in almost every sector of Africa’s economy, but commercial relations with the US have been dominated by US engagement in natural resources.

I’m a fan of effective mineral resource development. But it is a narrow and unstable base on which to build a healthy commercial or strategic relationship between the US and Africa.

Enter the BUILD Act. It establishes a new entity, new financing and new authorities designed to support Africa and other emerging markets as they build critical infrastructure. To date, Africa’s primary partner in building road, rail and social infrastructure has been China. Since 2009, China has committed over $75 billion to African infrastructure, and developed an effective complex of infrastructure builders and state-supported concessionary finance. At its triennial meeting with African heads of state, Chinese leader Xi Jiping recently committed to $50 billion more in financing, warmly embracing Africa in the One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative. Meanwhile, the United States, which so effectively built its own infrastructure and rebuilt Europe’s in the 20th century, has been slow to participate in Africa’s in the 21st century.
The BUILD Act brings American competitiveness above ground. It authorizes the US government to activate up to $60 billion in US financing for emerging market infrastructure projects. It allows that funding to be invested in equity, not just debt instruments and in local currency, not just dollars. And it creates the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) to do it, consolidating the previously diffuse development finance activities of the US government into one better-resourced organization.

The BUILD Act has 44 co-sponsors in the House and 16 in the Senate. One of its principal architects is Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. We recently had a chance to talk as it became clear the BUILD Act could pass after seven years of effort. “When I was in the private sector,” Coons said, reflecting on his eight years with W.L. Gore (the makers of Goretex) before entering public service, “we always asked ‘what’s the next China after China?’ Well, appropriately, China figured it out. It’s Africa. And in the last twenty years, US commercial engagement with Africa has remained flat or dropped, while that of our peers and near peers has risen. If the US wants to compete in the 21st century, we have to be in Africa.” Senator Coons sponsored and shepherded the BUILD Act in part for that purpose.

The effect {of the BUILD Act] on US business could be significant. “If you want to be competitive in Africa, you have to be involved as a partner of government from the beginning of planning, and then you have to be able to bring a complete package solution for delivery—technical and financial—to delivery,” said Andrew Patterson. He has been the Africa president for US-based infrastructure builder Bechtel since 2015.
“The BUILD Act will help do that, by supporting funding feasibility and pre-feasibility and feasibility studies including master plans, then creating equity and non-equity financing opportunities. Bechtel has partnered with global development finance agencies worldwide and the BUILD Act will let us do more. It will provide opportunities to do more with the US government and increase US content on the projects.”

There is some risk the IDFC will favor large companies disproportionately, a criticism levelled against US development finance organizations before. The BUILD Act enjoys broad support in Washington in part because it is perceived as a counter to China’s spending on emerging market infrastructure and other capital-intensive, state-led projects. If the USIDC limits its activities to those sectors, the large companies that dominate them will be the primary beneficiaries.

Broadening the reach of the BUILD Act to additional sectors will require active management from the new IDFC. In Africa, the digital sector holds particular potential for sustained returns, impact and US interests. While growth rates on the continent fluctuate steeply with political and economic cycles, connectivity in Africa – the number of people connected to the internet – has grown by 29%, annually since 2000, 2.5X the rate of the rest of the world. Two potential African digital unicorns—Interswitch and Jumia—are reported to plan listings next year on international exchanges. There is a gap between those two and most other digital ventures emerging on the continent, in part due to a lack of capital. It is IDFC’s explicit mandate to fill such gaps.

The IDFC is also mandated to deliver development impact and the human and economic impact of digital innovation is hard to overstate. The majority of the world’s unbanked are in Africa, where the mobile banking adoption rate is already over 12%, six times the world average. The future of access to finance is on the phone. Much of the future of access to power is there as well. About 360 million people have acquired mobile-enabled off grid power to date. Another 380 million (about a third of all those without power today) are expected to get it via mobile-enabled solar units in the next four years. It’s simply non-controversial that the social impact of investing in digital technology rivals the social impact of infrastructure.

The Act has several vehicles that could deepen US engagement in the African digital economy. First, it authorizes the creation of investment funds. One or more funds designed to foster financial inclusion or digital innovation in a high-impact sector like health, power or education would be well within the mandate. There are risks associated with impact funds of this kind, and the US government has a mixed record managing them in the past. But much has been learned about emerging market investing and impact investing since then and it is possible for the IDFC to do it well, as the World Bank’s IFC Unit does currently.
Second, the IDFC will be absorbing and adapting the program previously run as USAID’s Development Credit Authority, a credit guarantee window intended to expand access to finance. The new agency should take the opportunity to redesign the DCA for a mobile-first future. A strong step would be for the first CEO of the IDFC to invite some of the entrepreneurs and investors leading Africa’s digital revolution over for a chat.

At a time when US engagement abroad and bipartisanship at home are in short supply, the BUILD Act is an example of both. It’s likely to help propel the US commercial engagement in Africa above ground. With creativity, it can also expand the US’s role as African producers and consumers connect to the cloud.